Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Budget 2022: Statements (Resumed)
Seán Kyne (Fine Gael)
I commend the Minister of State, the the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, and all of the Cabinet on their work on the budget, on the public expenditure side, as announced yesterday. Additional details will be given in briefings conducted in sectoral Departments. There is a lot of information that has not yet been released but it will be over the next number of days.
It is important to acknowledge that we have experienced two of the largest challenges ever to face this country - Covid and Brexit. When we dealt with Brexit issues in 2018 and 2019 we were not fully aware of what the consequences might be so provisions had to be made for a worst-case scenario, which had an impact on budget 2020. Then the pandemic beset us in early 2020. It is important to acknowledge that the ability of the State to respond to the challenges was due to the stewardship given to public finances over the past decade. Difficult decisions were made that resulted in the books being balanced in 2020 and a reserve of funding being built up. The good name of the country was also restored so we could borrow on the international market to fund all that was required under Brexit.
The parameters of the budget were outlined in the summer economic statement. I welcome the substantial increases in each Department and, in particular, I acknowledge the work that has been done by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Health Humphreys. If Covid has taught us anything it is that the people who never dreamed that they would have to rely on direct financial support from the State found themselves needing that. It is important to recognise that social protection is a safety net for anyone in this country who needs support. The State exists for a number of reasons but the main one is to help people who need support and I welcome the general increases in weekly social welfare rates such as pensions and the living alone allowance. The fuel allowance has also been increased. From July, the duration of parents' benefits will increase from two weeks to seven weeks. The income threshold for the working family payment has been increased. The school meals programmes has now been extended to all DEIS schools. Yes, there are still anomalies; there are certain schools that should be DEIS schools but are not due to parameters but I do not know why they are not and it is hard to explain. There are schools in my area I consider should be on the top of the DEIS schools list but are not so there are serious anomalies.
I welcome the changes that have been made to the carer's scheme. One just never knows in what circumstances one might have to step up and provide care to a family member or loved one. Carers do tremendous work and are often very stressed. As I have said before, every family is different. Some families may have a lot of siblings who can help while other people are left to provide care on their own or with just one other person. I welcome the increase in income and capital disregards for carers as well as the increase in the earnings limit from €350 to €375. I also welcome the increase in the general weekly means disregard for the disability allowance and the provisions for certain treatment benefits.The tax changes I discussed yesterday are important in giving a break for the general public.
I spoke this morning on the health matters and issues relating to the waiting lists. I urged that we need to put the same focus into tackling the waiting lists that we did with Covid and that we must treat this situation as the priority that it is. It requires the same energy and enthusiasm. Our consultants and theatre nurses have so much expertise and there is so much equipment in our operating theatres. We need to maximise their use in order to clear the backlogs. That is important. I welcome the €4 billion in exceptional funding provided in the budget for health. I also welcome the funding for the initiative to tackle waiting lists.
The education budget is certainly welcome with the additional teachers and special needs assistants. There are changes to further and higher education. The changes to the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant are particularly welcome, including the increase in the maintenance grant and the reduction in the distance required for the non-adjacent grant from 45 km to 30 km. This will be an important change for families. The problem with thresholds is that very often people are just above the threshold and it is difficult because they are trying to rummage around to see if they can get under it. It is a particular difficulty for families. Any support that helps to increase the possibility of getting that grant is extremely important for families.
On the Department of Justice allocation, provision is made for some 300 additional gardaí - after we account for those who are retiring - and an additional 400 civilian staff members to allow for more gardaí on the beat. People in every part of the country like to be able to see gardaí on patrol, particularly in urban areas where visibility is important. I certainly hope there can be increased visibility in our capital city, in provincial cities and our large towns. It is of course important to have Garda patrol cars on the rounds in rural areas also. I welcome that.
I welcome the changes in respect of public transport which the Minister of State's party has been involved with in the reduction of the cost for public transport.
There is one matter about which I am disappointed. I had called for the establishment of a community centre fund. While it has been done for upgrades of community centres, there is no fund of scale for new community centres or new centres in towns or in areas of growing population. It is a particular gripe in my area in Moycullen where the population is growing, land is zoned, and there is an expectation that the number of houses will increase, but there is nowhere the community can go to get up to €4 million or €5 million for an infrastructure of that size. I raised this issue previously. Perhaps the community centre fund is a start, but it is for upgrades. This is something of which we need to be conscious. If we want people to support new development, there has to be something for communities and for their children. Community centres and other amenities are hugely important.
I also support the changes in respect of the childcare sector and the increased funding. This is a hugely important area for providing the additional support. There are challenges for providers regarding costs and in the context of staff retention and pay. I am aware that work is going on in that regard between the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman and the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy English. I compliment and commend the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, on the work he and his colleagues have done in this budget.